Photo by Jade Palmer

Is our appreciation of a song decided by more than just the quality of the music?

This was the question that a recent study, carried out by Carolyn Kroger and Elizabeth Margulis at the University of Arkansas, tried to answer.

This is a more complicated issue than it might first appear to be, since perceived quality is not always the same as enjoyment. Also, there are many other factors which are completely outside the control of the artist, such as the audience's familiarity with the artist, their personality, ticket prices to watch a gig, and even the order of performance.

The study, entitled “‘But they told me it was professional’: Extrinsic factors in the evaluation of musical performance” investigated what impacted the audience’s preferences based on a few categories:

•    The status of the performer (conservatory student vs. world-renowned professional)

•    The order of the presentation of the performances (which person performed first)

•    The extrinsic information that the audience was given about the performance (information about the performance via things such as program notes, who was performing, information about the pieces, etc.)

In experiment one, the audience heard two performances of a piano piece. After each pair, they selected the one they thought had been performed by the professional.

In experiment two, the audience heard the same performance pairs, but this time were informed, correctly or incorrectly, before each performance whether it was played by a student or by a professional. After each pair, they selected the performance they preferred.

According to the study, familiarity proved to be a positive factor. Repeated listenings enhanced enjoyment significantly. Also, participants rated the performance they thought was professional as both more enjoyable and of higher quality than the other after hearing the piece multiple times. People may rate specific technical components, such as tempo, dynamics, expressivity, and individuality, as more successfully executed on second exposure to a particular piece.

In the second experiment, the audience was informed (accurately or inaccurately) on whether they were hearing a professional or a student. They tended to prefer the performance when they were told that they were about to hear a “professional”, although they were sometimes hearing the student. The audience went with what they thought was “higher quality” (the professional) because they were more informed about the subject.

Overall, the study showed that an audience does enjoy music more when they think a professional made it, irrespective of whether they actually did. However, if the professional did produce the music then this impact was, inevitably increased.

The full report of “But they told me it was professional’: Extrinsic factors in the evaluation of musical performance” can be found here.